Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mountain Song, by Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Wind River Peak, WY. Photo by Hannah Rose Shogren Smith

I don't have much time to enjoy them now, but I am a big fan of audiobooks. The experience of listening to a story, rather than silently reading it, has its own special charm. My first exposure to Jules Verne was through a book-on-tape version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, at the age of 6 or 7. (It was an abridged edition--still terrifying.) The scene where Axel becomes separated from his two companions in the pitch-black subterranean tunnels still rings extremely vividly in my memory, in a way I'm sure it wouldn't if I'd first read it in a book. The human voices pulled me almost physically into the story.

So imagine my delight when a few years ago I came across a website completely devoted to producing free audiobooks. This website is They are a worldwide group of volunteers who record works in the public domain and post them on the site for anyone to download and enjoy. So it's a perfect place for someone like me, who loves both audiobooks and the classics. They also encourage recordings in other languages than English (so that, when I was studying French last year, I was able to listen to Verne and Dumas in their original tongue--not that I understood it well, but it was an interesting exercise). But one of my favorite things about Librivox is the fact that whenever I'm there I always stumble upon some gem I had no idea existed. A year ago I discovered Stevenson's Father Damien letter (see my post on that here). More recently, I tripped over George Macdonald's Phantastes--the fairy tale that proved crucial in the conversion of C.S. Lewis. And just a few weeks ago, I uncovered a delightful little poem about mountains by a Norwegian author, Bjornstjerne Bjornson.

The poem, "Mountain Song", is an English translation of the original Norwegian from Bjornson's novel A Happy Boy. Although the poem refers to the mountains of Norway, it attracted me at once because it reminded me of my experience hiking in Wyoming--both physically and spiritually. Here it is--and here is a link to the Librivox page, if you care to listen along!

Mountain Song
By Bjornstjerne Bjornson
When you will the mountains roam
And your pack are making,
Put therein not much from home,
Light shall be your taking!
Drag no valley-fetters strong
To those upland spaces,
Toss them with a joyous song
To the mountains' bases!
Birds sing Hail! from many a bough,
Gone the fools' vain talking,
Purer breezes fan your brow,
You the heights are walking.
Fill your breast and sing with joy!
Childhood's mem'ries starting,
Nod with blushing cheeks and coy,
Bush and heather parting.
If you stop and listen long,
You will hear upwelling
Solitude's unmeasured song
To your ear full swelling;
And when now there purls a brook,
Now stones roll and tumble,
Hear the duty you forsook
In a world-wide rumble.
Fear, but pray, you anxious soul,
While your mem'ries meet you!
Thus go on; the perfect whole
On the top shall greet you.
Christ, Elijah, Moses, there
Wait your high endeavor.
Seeing them you'll know no care,
Bless your path forever.
The language is deceptively simple. Anyone who's ever travelled on foot in the mountains will be familiar with those "purer breezes", that "unmeasured song of solitude". Naturally I am now curious about this Bjornson fellow. Aside from Norse legends, I've never touched Scandinavian literature. Perhaps I should try it?  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Citizenship of Language

I'm happy to announce that one month from now I will be returning--briefly, at least--to Wyoming Catholic College. I am participating in their first-ever Founders' Scholarship competition, which involves two days in Lander writing an essay, giving a speech, and having an interview. The award is a four-year full tuition scholarship--so you can be sure I'm keyed up!

In preparation for speech and essay writing, I recently finished an excellent little book called The Office of Assertion, by Scott F. Crider, an English professor at the University of Dallas. The book, covering topics of invention, organization, and style, is a brief but handy overview of the "art of rhetoric for the academic essay". It was a good, sound refresher for me on techniques of essay writing--but I also loved the way Professor Crider talked about the purpose of writing. Quoting a fine passage from Richard Weaver, he reminds us that even a single sentence is a thing of power: "[T]he right to utter a sentence is one of the very greatest liberties.... The liberty to impose this formal unity is a liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions." Crider specifically emphasizes that the purpose of an academic essay is to lead the soul of the reader towards some truth inherent in the subject. I'd never heard it put that way before. But I liked it a lot.

Near the end of his book, Crider quotes again from Richard Weaver (it seems I shall have to read some Weaver after this), introducing a concept he called "the language citizen": "Like the political citizen defined by Aristotle, language citizenship makes one empowered to decide. The work is best carried on, however, by those who are aware that language must have some connection to the intelligential world...."

This phrase--language citizenship--intrigued me and plunged me into a long muse. If there are language citizens, then, by extention of metaphor, there must be a language city. But what is this city? Is it the collective sphere of the ideas, thoughts, and words of humanity? Do we all have this citizenship--by virtue of being creatures who communicate--or do we have to "earn" it through diligent study of using language well? Does this citizenship imply a duty? What is that duty? Is it merely to keep the rules of grammar and good style, or does it run deeper? Does it have something to do with "soul-leading"--using language to bring the light of truth to another human being?

It occurred to me at this point that if this last point were correct--if the proper use of language were to communicate truth--then the concept of language citizenship is not a mere metaphor. It's actually the lifeblood of real citizenship. Demagogues abuse freedom and justice through their abuse of language--by clouding the truth through words instead of revealing it. Remember how Weaver said above that even a sentence has the ability to influence others' actions? This, then, is the duty of the actual citizen and language citizen--to both seek the truth through skillful use of words, and to act upon it.